Raising the Awareness of Online Accessibility


The Importance of Developing and Investing in Online Course Materials That Enrich the Classroom Experience for Special-Needs Students

In early 2002, I participated in a training institute for online methodology that provided several practicaltechniques for teaching online, including how to select and place content, as well as how to facilitate online discussionsand assessment strategies. Since then, I have taught online and hybrid courses every semester, joined forums for online instructors,and attended a handful of conferences and workshops dedicated to online teaching. Interestingly, none of the forums everincluded discussions on the development of course materials for special-needs students. And although there has been muchdialogue recently about teaching to different learning styles, as I recall, none of these discussions even hinted that teaching todifferent styles included students with learning disabilities or that students may be using assistive technology, such as a screenreader or voice-recognition software, to access online course materials.

I do not mean to imply there is no consideration for special-needs students because, like most institutions, MiddlesexCommunity College (which has two campuses in Massachusetts) has a wonderful department that supports students with documenteddisabilities. There is a comprehensive faculty handbook that defines and explains disabilities, outlines the college’s policiesand procedures, and offers teaching strategies. The college also offers ample on-campus professional development workshops. Soobviously the information is available, but discussions on teaching students with disabilities are still generally separate, awarenessof issues that arise is not mainstream, and conversations about online instructional design for learning are not quite universal.

However, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has coined the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) concept as“a new paradigm for teaching, learning and assessment, drawing on new brain research and new media technologies to respondto individual learner differences.” So, as schools and colleges continue to adopt course management tools such as Blackboardand WebCT, more educators are offering instruction and posting course materials online. In addition, numerous articles have beenwritten on how to create HTML pages that comply with Section 508 and the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility standards.But as Web-based course management tools become more accessible, training for these platforms needs to include discussionsabout how to make materials and curricula accessible to all potential users.

With this in mind, I set out to collect observations and anecdotal information to gain insight into the experiences of special-needsstudents who take online courses, because “the future is in the margins” as the folks at CAST like to say. That is, “by helpingthose who are marginalized in traditional classrooms (e.g., those with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and other challenges),we discover educational methods and materials that are flexible and powerful enough to help all students, regardless oftheir ability, maximize their progress” (CAST 2004).

Student Accounts

Raising the Awareness of Online AccessibilityThose with learning disabilities account for the largest proportion of special-needs students, so I was particularlyinterested in their experiences with the online course format. Fortunately, this past semester, two students enrolled in onlineclasses were eager to share their observations on how the online format impacted their learning. The first student, Beth, isdiagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. And although ADHD is technically not a learning disability, studentswith the disorder do have difficulty concentrating and processing speech amid ambient noise. Beth initially thought that an onlinecourse required too much reading and would make her feel unsupported. However, because Beth has difficulty absorbinginformation in a traditional lecture-format class, an online course seemed like a good option to consider. According to Beth,she benefited greatly from the online forum because she could work asynchronously, at her own paceand without distraction. Although there was a lot of reading, she felt motivated because the activities were designed asshort, individual, manageable tasks. Beth commented on how access to online course materials could enrich the classroomexperience for many students.

Another student, Sarah, shared her experiences after finishing her first online course. Sarah has dyslexia; thus, she hasdifficulty reading and decoding information. She had a more difficult time in her online course because it was a skill-building,technical course in which the detailed instructions were instrumental to her success. Sarah felt she would havebenefited from either an audio book or a screen reader. However, Sarah offered an interesting suggestion when sharinghow she searches for Web sites that have content similar to course concepts and are geared more for children, which help herwith conceptual comprehension. While Sarah’s comments suggested the use of clear, simple explanations and the benefitsof images and/or sound, the use of images and sound opens up another set of issues to consider since they are not alwayscompatible with assistive technology.

Access to Course Materials

The typical secondary or postsecondary classroom teacher is not likely to encounter a student using assistive technology until its use becomes mainstream. However, students are accessing course materials using assistive technology, and educators should take this into consideration as they choose instructional strategies and learning technologies. In the course of my own research, I had the opportunity to review the features and functions of common assistive technology tools such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text software. But while it’s one thing to see a software demonstration and marvel at what it can do, it is another totalk with students and discover how they really use the technology and what implications it has for them. To gain insight,I met with a couple of students who use assistive technology to access online course materials.

The first student, Brian, has dyslexia, which makes it difficult for him to decode and comprehend text. In addition tospecialized tutoring with a licensed speech and language pathologist, Brian uses Kurzweil 3000 from Kurzweil EducationalSystems for reading assistance and to accommodate his disability. Kurzweil 3000 interprets the on-screen text and“reads” it to the user. According to Brian, he d'esn’t use Kurzweil 3000 for things such as reading instructions, forms orbrowsing the Web, because it wouldn’t be worth the time to launch the software to use it for reviewing homework assignmentsin the Blackboard system. However, he d'es use Kurzweil 3000 for assigned readings since it is a frustrating andlengthy process without the program.

Among other things, Brian’s reliance on Kurzweil software made me aware that the availability of digital textis important for all students; not just for those with learning disabilities. With the aid of screen-reading software suchas Kurzweil 3000 or JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific, reading can be made easier for individuals with learningdisabilities as well as made possible for people who are blind or have low vision.

Our meeting also prompted me to look at the wording of instructions and determine whether they were clear, as wellas whether my anecdotal information was helpful or unnecessary. The meeting also underscored the importance of usingalternative text when embedding images. In addition, I met with Susan, a student who has difficulty keyboardingbecause of the effects of cerebral palsy. To accommodate her disability, she uses a speech-to-text software programcalled Dragon NaturallySpeaking from ScanSoft. Susan uses her own machine when doing work because the software istrained to recognize her personal speech patterns, and she has several macros that perform repetitive tasks.

While Susan is able to use the mouse to log in to the course and click on its links, the process takes longer than it would forthe average student. If she needs to work hands-free, she can use the “mouse grid” feature. With this feature, whenever auser says “mouse grid,” a numbered grid appears on-screen enabling the user to choose a number that positions the mousepointer in one of the areas. The user continues this process until the cursor is where he or she wants it to be. To scrollup and down, Susan uses a verbal scroll command that makes the screen scroll one paragraph at a time; she cannot scrolla line at a time unless she uses the mouse.Our meeting underscored the benefits of working with course management tools such as Blackboard and WebCT since bothcompanies have done much to make their platforms meet accessibility standards. I could also see there were small ways thatthoughtful course design could make a difference, such as establishing a consistent flow to the course, eliminating unnecessaryclicking and scrolling, and using inclusive language. I’ve even extended my course prerequisite, which used to read“the course assumes an ability to use a keyboard and a mouse,” to include “…or comparable input devices/methods.”


These are only a few examples of how taking time to converse with and observe students can create an awarenessthat enables you to see course materials as they experience them. Presented in this context, I began to see pedagogicalconcepts as much more than helpful teacher suggestions — I saw them as a means to ensure my educational materialswere accessible to all my students. So when developing course materials, ask yourself how a student with a learningdisability might perceive the tasks and information, how a deaf person would understand the content of your Web sitewithout relying on sound, how a person who is blind would access a Web page using a screen reader, and how a studentwith physical impairments might participate in a chat session. Chances are you’ll find yourself saying, “I hadn’t thought ofit in that context,” and you’ll make design changes that will have a universal impact.

Development of online courses or course materials and discussions of learning styles should include the needsof individuals with disabilities and the potential technology that the students use to access these materials. Solicitingfeedback from students and spending time with them as they learn are simple yet powerful ways to gain an awareness ofyour course materials’ accessibility.

The intent of this article is to generate some observations and suggest ideas toassist teachers in both identifying and considering students’ learning experiences, as well as to create an awareness ofthe need to choose specific pedagogical approaches with all students in mind. “Most instructors and students do not have 100% of their faculties working at 100% capacity for 100% of the time; disability is pretty much a relative term. Ifsomething makes online instruction both efficient and more effective, it may well be worth the investment” (Miller 2004).

Guidelines for Developing Accessible Online Courses

Spending just a small amount of time with students gave me insight to look more carefully at the accessibility of my instructional materials. From these reflections and various readings, I established a few guidelines that I keep in mind when developing new courses. This is not an exhaustive list; the intent is to create an awareness of things to consider when creating course materials. If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to take an online course yourself. This has greatly influenced my decisions about the design and layout of materials.

Instructional Strategies

  • Use the Announcement page to give brief, clear directions; update announcements weekly.
  • Organize curriculum into manageable units or modules.
  • Chunk unit/module activities into small manageable tasks.
  • Carefully state learning goals and performance outcomes at the onset of each unit/module.
  • Differentiate instruction and appeal to various learning styles, including images, sound and text.
  • Make printable versions of units/modules available.
  • Choose texts that are available in electronic and audio forms.
  • Provide pointed feedback during and after task completion.

Course Design

  • Establish a consistent organization/flow for the course.
  • Eliminate any unused menu items or areas.
  • Avoid extensive layering of activities (i.e., folders within folders within folders, etc.).
  • Minimize the need to scroll wherever possible.
  • Use a consistent color theme to group points; avoid excess color.
  • Select graphics that won’t distract from the learning environment.
  • Run all assigned Web pages through the Bobby test (http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp) to ascertain accessibility.
  • Include “alternative” text when embedding images or multimedia.
  • Offer PowerPoint presentations in HTML format so that they’re accessible to screen readers.

-- L. Weir


Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). 2004. “Universal Design for Learning.” Online: http://www.cast.org/.

Miller, K. 2004. “The Law Catches Up With Distance Education.” T.H.E. Journal 31 (7).

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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